A Bird in the House


The theme of entrapment is evident in Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House; all the characters in the novel are entrapped. These characters deal with the sense of confinement and the need for escape. Vanessa, Ewen and Aunt Edna all reach personal freedom, however only to a small extent because they are left with the pain of their memories and regrets.
Vanessa reaches personal freedom to a small extent. The stories in A Bird in the House show the pains that Vanessa goes through while growing up. Vanessa travels on a journey form ignorance to knowledge. This journey is her comprehension of why things happen, and how the past, present and future are tied together. Vanessa realizes that the past affects the present which affects the future. While growing up Vanessa is faced with having to live with the dominance of Grandfather Conner. Grandfather Conner represents a dominant patriarchal figure that rules the family. He always had a strong control over the people that lived with him. He was a perfectionist and was very proud of what he had accomplished and at no cost would he let his reputation be scarred. After her fathers death Vanessa moved into the Brick House with Grandfather Conner, this is when she noticed the trapped conditions that aunt Edna was living in and her mother was going to have to live in again. Vanessa always tried to free herself of the things that went on around her by writing exaggerated adventure stories. When Vanessa wrote, it was her chance to get away from the things that made her feel trapped. Vanessa is freed of Grandfather Conner’s tyranny when he dies, at least one thinks so. However it is evident in the story “Jericho’s Brick Battlements,” that Vanessa will never be free of Grandfather Conner. The painful memories that she has of him will remind her everyday that she is not free of his oppression. Vanessa realizes that she is like him when: “she wanted to tell the new owners of the Brick house to trim their hedges, to repaint the windowframes, to pay heed to repairs. she had feared and fought grandfather Conner, yet he proclaimed himself in her veins.” (“A Bird in the House,” p. 191). Thus, it is evident that Vanessa was not free of Grandfather Conner’s tyranny, which prevented her from reaching personal freedom.
In addition, Vanessa was unable to achieve personal freedom because of the pain that her regrets brought her. It is evident in the story “Horses of the Night” that Vanessa does not open up to Chris because she is worried about the age difference between them; “Chris was twenty-one. The distance between them was still too great. For years she had wanted to be older so she might talk with him, but now she felt unready” (“A Bird in the House,” p.140). This holds her back from getting close to him and understanding him better. Vanessa later realizes that when she went camping with Chris he had wanted to open up to her, because he trusted her. When Chris is admitted into a mental hospital Vanessa concludes that if she had let Chris talk to her, he would not have ended up in a mental institution. This regret that Vanessa feels keeps her from reaching personal freedom.

Likewise, Ewen MacLeod does not reach personal freedom because of the memories and regrets that he carries around with him. The death of his brother Roderick proves to be a very tragic moment of his life. Grandmother MacLeod is very successful in making Ewen feel guilty for surviving, when his brother did not. This guilt is what keeps Ewen quiet in front of her, he does not raise his voice to her and when he does he instantly apologises. In the story “A Bird in the House” Ewen drops the hint that the time when he was away at war was a time when he was free, it was a time in which he was able to explore different places. Ewen says: “It was kind of interesting to see a few other places for a change…” (“A Bird in the House,” p.91). After Ewen’s death Vanessa finds a love letter and a picture of a girl that she believes was her fathers lover. Vanessa “…hopes the girl in the picture had meant some momentary and unexpected freedom” for her father (“A Bird in the House,” p.107). Vanessa realises that her father (Ewen) had been free when he was not at home. Thus, it is clear that Ewen’s memories are what prevented him from reaching personal freedom.

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In the same manner, Ewen’s regrets kept him from accomplishing personal freedom. In the story “To Set Our House in Order,” Ewen shares with Vanessa the dream that he once had. The dream to go out into the merchant marine. Ewen tells Vanessa about Grandfather MacLeod and how he enjoyed reading Greek plays. “‘He was interested in them,’ Ewen said. ‘Grandfather MacLeod must have been a lonely man…Maybe he would have liked to talk to somebody about the plays. They must have meant a lot to him'” (“A Bird in the House,” p.54). The way in which Ewen describes Grandfather MacLeod’s passion to Vanessa show’s that Ewen felt the same way. Ewen felt lonely because he wanted to do one thing but did another. Ewen’s regret is that knowing how much he wanted to go into the merchant marine he did not. Thus, it is evident that Ewen’s regret did not allow him to reach personal freedom.

Similarly, Aunt Edna is a character that almost lets the opportunity to attain personal freedom pass by her. Aunt Edna spent her life trapped in the Brick house with Grandfather Conner and his power, she did not get any freedom while she was with him. Vanessa’s mother and Aunt Edna had to seek freedom in the whispered conversations they had in the kitchen. Aunt Edna also had some momentary freedom when she was having an affair with Jimmy Lorimer. This freedom was taken away from her when the affair ended. So, once again Aunt Edna was trapped by Grandfather Conner. In “Jericho’s Brick Battlements” Aunt Edna is faced with the opportunity to be free of Grandfather Conner, when she is presented with this opportunity she is not sure of whether she should take it or not. Wes Grigg is a character that is introduced in this story, he wants to marry Aunt Edna. At this point in the story it is evident that Beth (Vanessa’s mother) is persuading Aunt Edna to marry him and get out of the house. Beth explains to Aunt Edna that she has had her freedom, and that it ended when Ewen died. Aunt Edna take’s this into consideration and says: “‘I guess I’ve got used to being back here in the old dungeon. It’s strange, Beth. Father’s impossible, and certainly no one has said it oftener than I have…I have the feeling that the absolute worst wouldn’t happen here, ever,” (“A Bird in the House,” p.173). Aunt Edna knows that she has been trapped all the time that she has lived with Grandfather Conner however, when she has the opportunity to be free she doesn’t feel that it is needed. Aunt Edna is a character in the compilation of stories that after many chances reaches freedom. Freedom from Grandfather Conner the person that made her feel like there was no where to run, she was finally free of him when she left his house. Therefore, it is evident that unlike other characters Aunt Edna reaches personal freedom at the end of the last story.
All in all, it is clear that Vanessa, Ewen and Aunt Edna all reach personal freedom, however only to a small extent. These characters at some point had freedom, or they had a way in which they could be free of the things that went on around them. Vanessa wrote in order to get away from the harshness of the life, it was an escape from the reality that she lived at home.Ewen had personal freedom when he was away at war, he was away from home and this was a time in which he was happy. Aunt Edna struggled throughout her life and was trapped by Grandfather Conner, she reached personal freedom when she marries Wes Grigg and goes away from home. The theme of entrapment is evident throughout A Bird in the House and every character in the stories is trapped in the pain of their memories and regrets.

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